Dialogue Journals: A Mentor Growth Tool

by Barry Sweeny

The Best Form for Communication:
During my four years as a mentor program coordinator I came to feel that of all the forms of interaction with mentors, my favorite was the reflection and "conversation" which occurred through the mentor "dialogue journals" which some of the mentors in our program kept. While I am sure that choosing this form of interaction reveals a great deal about me, I must reply that dialogue journals became my favorite interaction because they revealed so much about the process of mentoring and the evolution that mentors must undergo as they learn the "craft" of the mentor. What follows is a description of the dialogue journal, how it functions, and some of what the use of such journals has revealed about mentor growth.

Mentor-Coordinator Communications
While the purpose of the mentor program that I coordinated was to develop the new professionals which our school district employed, the primary activity that I engaged in as coordinator was the development of the mentors. In fact, I often have described the role of mentor program coordinator as one of "a mentor to the mentors".

Serving as a mentor of mentors, however, is a trickier task then one might realize. How does a mentor coordinator promote mentor development when most of the actual work of mentoring a new teacher is quite "invisible" to those outside of the mentoring pair? I found that to help mentors grow I needed to know their work pretty intimately and yet, much of the work a mentor does requires private conversation, a confidentiality, and a "safe setting" in which to try out new skills and ideas.

As coordinator, I found that I needed to establish the same safe, confidential relationship with mentors to foster their sharing with me the trials and joys which mentors experience. The necessary level of sharing can only result from frequent communications between coordinator and mentor and that, I found, had to be built into the expectations for mentoring.

Choosing a Communication Link
Once stated, the expectation of communication between the mentor and coordinator has never become as issue. This acceptance makes sense because mentors understand that communication with a coach is needed for mentors to grow. As a mentor program coordinator, however, I did find that the different learning preferences of each mentor required the use of different approaches to communication with the mentors. Some mentors prefer to interact in personal meetings, others like telephone conversation, and still other mentors will choose to keep a journal because it is a tool and a discipline which promotes increased reflection. In the mentor program which I coordinated, about one third of the mentors chose to keep a journal.

How a Dialogue Journal Works
When I decided to try the journal idea I purchased a series of the cloth covered blank books which can be found in book stores for about $5 or less. I supplied a book in the color of their choice to those mentors who indicated an interest in a journal. Mentors were asked to date each entry as if it were a diary and they were asked to write only on one page and to leave the facing page open. Mentors were asked to submit their journals about once a quarter when I would read their ideas, concerns, and stories and then write back to them on the facing page.

Mentors were told that they could write as little or as much as they wished and that the focus of their writing was to be their experiences and learning as a mentor. Further, I promised that I would keep all the contents of the journals I read confidential and that I would never criticize what was written. Rest assured, reader, that the quotations from journals which follow in this article have all had individual references removed and that the quotations are used with permission. It has been fascinating to read these journals and to see mentoring through all these different sets of eyes. What a privilege to share so closely in these mentors' experiences!

Mentor Growth Patterns Revealed
Of particular interest to me has been the strong similarities in the feelings and the common patterns in the experiences which many mentors have expressed through their journals. Unfortunately, each mentor can rarely see these patterns in their own writing as they are "too close" to it to be objective. When I write back in a mentor's journal I try to help the mentor discover these emerging patterns which tell the story of that mentor's development. Here are some of the patterns I have discovered in the mentoring process.

The Early Months of Mentoring
Mentoring always seems to go quite well during the first few months. Proteges recognize how much they have to learn about their new jobs and so they are more willing to defer to the mentor's judgment and experience. The mentors feel very purposeful and appreciated because they can share what they know and the proteges seem to both need and appreciate what is offered.

Mentoring in the early months may be very time consuming but it is not too hard. Typical topics begin with "Where is the copier?" and range to "What curriculum must I follow?" Naturally, mentoring seems to be going very well when the mentor can predict the protege's questions and when the mentor knows most of the answers. Mentor journals are filled with comments which reflect the mentor's feeling of worth and enthusiasm. Here are just a few:
The Mid-Year Mentoring "Wall"
Just as marathon runners report "hitting a wall" at some point in a race, mentors often find a similar point is reached in the mentoring process. This period of struggle often comes near the end of the first semester, particularly if the classes which the protege teaches are a semester long. Look at some of the journal comments mentors have offered at the mid-year:
As the protege gains the knowledge needed to accomplish basic tasks he or she is not as likely to continue asking for the same kind of help. Often the protege will also be asking fewer questions rather than seeking out the mentor each time. This may mean that mentoring pairs meet less frequently and spend less informal time together. They may make "appointments" to get together.

Mentor Relationship Transitions
Whatever the changes are that mentors notice, these are natural transitions which result from the protege mastering "the easy stuff" and from developing more self- confidence. If a mentor gradually finds it harder to offer help, or if mentors are asked fewer questions, this does NOT mean that the mentoring relationship is nearing the end. It is more likely that mentors are needed more in this phase of growth than ever before!

The changes that a mentor senses are probably happening because the questions asked and the type of assistance that the protege needs becomes more sophisticated and complex with time. What is needed to respond appropriately is a shift in the mentor's role to provide for the different needs emerging in the protege.

An excellent example of the need for mentors to periodically refocus their attention was offered in a mentors's journal. The mentor had realized that the protege's questions had changed from only asking "What do we teach next?" (a short term answer is required) to asking "How can I fit all the curriculum in before the end of the year?" Answering the more complex question requires teaching the protege a decision making process that is more difficult but which is useful over the long term. What proteges at this point must learn, and what mentors must begin to teach is how to work through complex problems, making decisions in logical steps.

Some Mentoring Options
If you have experienced a similar change in your interaction as a mentor and protege pair you may find one of the following options to be helpful:
1. Proteges often reach a point where they feel too embarrassed to keep asking ques tions. Perhaps the protege has changed from just asking you specific questions to making statements which are an expression of concerns. This change will probably require that you not wait for a question to respond to, but rather that you "hear" the concern and read within it the "call for help". Refer to the Stages of Concern component of the Con cerns Based Adoption Model (CBAM) for ideas on how to hear and diagnose the needs implied by the concerns the protege expresses.
2. Perhaps the protege believes that you are tired of all the questions or that you are too busy for the protege to keep "bugging" you. You can put that concern to rest by saying something like:
If neither of the above statements fit how you feel, just be direct and ask...
If that question does not provoke protege questions on which to focus, try to be more specific.
As your protege develops, so also must your mentoring relationship evolve and your mentoring style adjust to the needs of the protege. While your role as a source of information will decrease, issues of greater significance will emerge and your experience as an educator will become a valuable resource to the protege.